Over the coming weeks, WSP will be looking in detail at how the office will evolve in a post-COVID world, from how we’ll behave around our long-lost colleagues to how a working from home revolution will affect demand for commercial space. How can employers transform their spaces into FOMO-inducing, must-go destinations, and what role will smart technologies play in all of this? Will sustainability be supported or hindered by the adaptations we’ve made? And what about resilience? We know that our closely networked, globalized world puts us at higher risk of future pandemics, so what does a “flexible” office mean in this context? 

But one of the first questions for returning office workers will be: is it safe? Infection prevention and control has never been a parameter for office design, and with our new knowledge and sensitivity around the spread of disease, how will we feel about sharing desks, kitchens and lifts with hundreds of other people? “This is going to completely change the way we design offices and other buildings,” says Austin Wikner, head of building services in London for WSP. “Isolation and separation have only ever been considered in healthcare and laboratory settings. Now we’re going to have to rip up the rulebook for office design and see how we can introduce some of these things.”

There are many tried-and-tested strategies from healthcare and high-performance buildings that could be transferred to offices. These come with varying levels of disruption and viability, and there are always trade-offs in performance versus energy, cost or experience. There are also strategies that can promote health more broadly within a building but may not tackle coronavirus specifically. The conundrum for building owners and employers will be how much they need to change to make us feel comfortable, and what compromises are worth it. We’ll discuss how this will interplay with the economics of changing occupier demand later in the series. But first we need to understand what can be done.